Our regular Now Reading book list was on hiatus over the summer as we focused on bringing on new staff and redesigning our website. Despite our busy lives trying to navigate a pandemic, dealing with social unrest, and getting our kids back to some semblance of a new normal school routine this fall, Literary Mama editors haven’t stopped reading. In fact, for some, books keep us going and give us hope in dark times. Below find selections which offer bravery, peace, humor, and creativity, and perhaps one or two happy endings, which we all could use right now.
Literary Reflections and Senior Editor Libby Maxey shares how she’s gone back in time to a favorite classic: “I started reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch on a plane the summer after I graduated from high school, but my progress was interrupted by college, and I never found the right time to return to that notoriously long novel. Twenty-five years later, I’m nearly halfway through the audiobook, and enjoying it immensely. I hadn’t remembered that the prose is so sharp and funny. Rather, I remembered the book’s seriousness, perhaps because of its early focus on Dorothea Brooke, a young woman who marries a much older man—an unaffectionate, inconsiderate scholar—because she is a bit too serious for her own good. The narrative also dwells on a cast of other young people: the career-minded Doctor Lydgate, newly come to town; passionate and judgmental Will Ladislaw, casting about for purpose; the mayor’s spoiled yet sympathetic children, yearning toward financially imprudent marriages; and clear-eyed, self-supporting Mary Garth, who knows the ways of the world well enough to want to keep herself out of the story. Eliot writes like a more worldly, more broadly educated Jane Austen, and some of her characters would not be out of place in a Dickens novel, their volubility inversely proportional to their self-awareness. Even so, her main characters are fully realized people, likable despite their unhappy vulnerabilities. They fall victim to their own untested assumptions about their positions in the world, to misplaced confidence in others, and to the pitfalls of rigid morality on one hand or weak compromise on the other—yet the reader can’t help but want them to blunder their way to a happy ending. With 19 hours of listening still ahead of me and only 12 days left before my library loan expires, I’m already plotting tedious weekend chores to make certain that I don’t leave this excellent book unfinished a second time.”
Kimberly Lee, Literary Reflections Editorial Assistant, tells us how she’s finding peace in these troubled times: “My favorite meditation studio has temporarily closed, providing me a ‘blessed opportunity,’ as my serene instructor would say, to develop my practice at home. Thankfully, the studio has converted their setup and now offers session via Zoom, but in the interim I’ve spent some time with a book I’d purchased from the studio’s shelves earlier in the year. Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices is one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s compact yet classic guidebooks to finding joy and meaning in the present moment, advice we could all benefit from during these challenging, unprecedented times. Just picking this little volume up to read a passage or two seems to slow my heart rate, deepen my breathing, calm my nerves. The book offers a variety of short, daily practices that suggest ways to infuse even the smallest of tasks (e.g., loading the dishwasher) with a sense of celebration and gratefulness. It also gives guidance on the importance of rest and relaxation, dealing with anxiety and uncertainty, and helping children adopt these healthy practices. Most of all, Nhat Hanh reminds us to be gentle with ourselves, because it is with us that peace begins, in each moment of every day. As recommended in Happiness, I started saying the following gatha (a short mindfulness verse) when I awaken.
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
I say this to myself before my feet touch the ground and have definitely felt the difference in how my days proceed.”
by George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Originally published in 1871; Norton Edition, 1999; 688pp.; $24.50Buy Book
Reviews Editor Autumn Purdy shares a book that she could not put down: “In July, I walked into my local bookshop for the first time since the pandemic hit and purchased what has proven to be the best novel, and one of the best books, I’ve read all year. Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward is a gripping and remarkable tale. Admittedly, the novel remained in my reading stack for a few weeks as I made my way through a pile of library reserves. Once I cracked open the spine, though, I was completely captivated. I finished reading it just before my oldest son turned twelve, the same age as the main character. Coincidentally, my son’s middle name is Edward, so that also struck a nerve and deepened the connection I felt to the book. Mostly, the writing is impeccable. Based on actual events, the storyline is replete with vivid detail and intimately drawn characters wrestling with the intricate realities of living life: tremendous suffering, reasons for existence, family dynamics, searching for a connection, giving and receiving love, grappling with loss, holding on and letting go, gaining inner and outer strength, and accepting the great possibility of destiny. The characters Napolitano has created and the details of their innermost lives have lingered in my mind and heart, and continue to haunt me a bit. As I ponder the depths of this breathtaking novel, I find myself mostly enamored by the courage and resilience of Edward, and how the author wrote him in such a convincing, beautiful way. The moving story and the pace of the writing kept me up way past midnight, eager to discover how a twelve-year-old boy could be the sole survivor of a horrendous plane crash, rehabilitate from his injuries, learn to accept the care and loving embrace of his childless aunt and uncle, and fully recover from the loss of his entire family—mother, father, and beloved brother—all so unjustly taken from him in one, shockingly dreadful moment and a horrifying twist of fate. Edward’s story is infectious, and his bravery will astound you. I promise Dear Edward is worth the read.”
Andrea Lani, Literary Reflections Editor and Senior Editor, delves into the creative process with music: “Like every American who wasn’t in a position to see the show on Broadway, I watched Hamilton with my family as soon as it became available for streaming. The next week, while making a toilet paper and hand sanitizer run at Target, I picked up the two-CD cast album, thinking my kids would want to relive the songs again and again. Of course CDs are hopelessly old-fashioned to teenagers, and it’s my husband and I who ended up spinning the discs on near-constant repeat while making dinner or working on household projects. I also ordered the companion book, Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, again hoping my kids would pick it up off the coffee table and read a few pages during a summer that’s been heavy with images on the screen and light on words on the page. But the binding remained uncracked until after we watched the show a second time and I became curious about the story behind the story. Music is completely outside my wheelhouse, and I have only a passing familiarity with either musical theater or hip-hop. But I’m fascinated by the creative process in all its guises, and the book offers an in-depth look into the long, many-layered undertaking that brought this ambitious production to the stage. McCarter’s text brings to life the characters, actors, and production crew through minibiographies and behind-the-scenes peeks into auditions and show development, and Miranda’s annotations of the lyrics are a master class in storytelling. He also draws attention to details like using words that can have multiple meanings (shot, helpless, satisfied), internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, aspects of language that I, as a prose writer, pay scant attention to. The annotations are also utterly charming in their enthusiastic shout-outs to Miranda’s musical heroes and his acknowledgment of his favorite lines, jokes, and exceptionally clever turns of phrase. I can’t say if these insights into the workings of a creative genius will make me a better writer, but the part of the book I’ve read so far has already made me a hopeful believer in the ideals that underpin our nation and our potential to attain those ideals.”